By Natasja Sheriff
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former deli worker accused of kidnapping and murdering a 6-year-old boy three decades ago tearfully described how he strangled the child and disposed of the body in a confession to a church group, witnesses testified on Friday.
Pedro Hernandez, 54, is charged with kidnapping and murdering Etan Patz, who vanished on May 25, 1979 while walking to a school bus stop in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood. It was his first day of going to school by himself.
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His body was never found, but in 2001 he was declared legally dead.
Testifying in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, Paito Concepcion, 79, said Hernandez confessed in a prayer circle at the end of a day-long summer religious retreat in 1979.
Hernandez cried as he confessed, Concepcion testified, speaking through an interpreter.
"He said that he worked in bodega here in New York, he grabbed the child, he gave him a soda, took him to the basement," he said. "Then later, he asphyxiated him."
He said Hernandez told him he cut up the boy's body.
"He said 'I put him in a plastic bag, and I threw him in the garbage, and that's it,'" he said.
The Patz case ignited a national movement to find missing children, and he was one of the first missing children whose picture appeared on a milk carton.
A second witness, Neftali Gonzales, 75, also testified that in the prayer circle, Hernandez cried when describing how he had tried to abuse a child.
"The child didn't let him, and he strangled him. He placed him in the garbage," Gonzalez said.
A third witness, Ramon Rodriguez, 75, also testified earlier in the case that Hernandez confessed to the kidnapping and murder on the religious retreat in New Jersey.
Hernandez' defense disputed the witnesses' credibility, saying there were inconsistencies in their stories and that details had changed since they first spoke to police in 2012.
Hernandez was arrested in 2012 after police got a tip that he had confessed at a church group.
He then confessed to police that he lured Patz to the basement of the Soho deli where he worked, strangled him and dumped him in an alley.
His defense attorneys say the police coerced that confession and said Hernandez is mentally ill and suffers hallucinations.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and David Gregorio)